Duel

Anyone who’s ever seen the Spielberg classic ‘Duel’ will know the dangers that can be associated with encountering large trucks on desert roads. I first saw that film many years ago (we had it recorded off television on VHS) and it flashes into my mind every so often when driving in the states, especially in the scenery I’ve been in for the past few days. 

Strange things happen when you’ve been driving for a long time. In the UK there is generally something to always occupy you, even at the quietest times of the day / night. It’s rare in the UK that you get a non-motorway road that is dead straight for anything more than a mile or two. If you do then it’s usually an ‘old roman road’ and somebody is mandated to mention this as you drive down it (“Ooh this is a very straight road. We must be on the old roman section of the B472”). 

If you get out any road map of the US west, or look on google maps, you will see that in the mid-western states many of the roads are just straight lines, hundreds of miles long. This kind of makes sense: if you’ve got a flat plain a thousand miles across, where nobody’s that bothered about who owns what (when you have a ranch bigger than Wales you’re not so touchy on where the road goes) why would you not build all your roads in straight lines? The mid-west is also in the odd situation that, in many cases, the roads were the first thing there, or, if not, followed alongside the railroads (which were also dead straight). 

When you’ve been driving on a dead straight road for over an hour, and have only seen one or two cars going in the other direction, you start to get possessive. You also start looking for challenges or things to entertain you – this is true of all road users. Yesterday, after having over an hour of this on a particular road:

..and many miles left to go I suddenly spied a speck on the horizon. Right in the distance, maybe two or three miles away, a little black speck on my road.

‘Who is this?’ I thought. ‘Who is this that dares intrude on my road?’

Ten minutes went by. The speck became a blob. I was getting closer.

(At is point you must remember that 95% of all driving in the US is done on on cruise control. You set your car to 55 or 65 or 75mph and let it go. Speeding seems to be comparatively rare compared to the UK and only seems to happen in the cities. This is an interesting point. In over two-thousand miles of driving this week I can only recall two occurrences when someone shot by me on the interstate – the kind of thing that happens every thirty seconds on the M1. I think it’s because the police over here have quite a heavy presence on the highways and interstates, with cars parked in prominent positions at the road side with their radar guns going.)

The fact that the blob was getting bigger meant that my cruise control was calibrated slightly differently to the blob’s, and that in twenty miles or so I’d have to overtake them. 

Another ten minutes went by. The blob got big enough for me to determine that it was a truck. Trucks in the US are not speed-limited like in the UK and have huge engines so can easily keep pace with everyone else. On the long highways whether or not you’ll catch a truck depends very much on the road. Every time there is an up-grade (as it’s called) you will gain slightly on the truck as their cruise control takes longer to respond. On a steep down-grade the truck will gain on you as it’s brakes heat up and it begins it’s spiral of doom that ends in a emergency run-away truck escape ramp (these are a work of art in themselves and are found on all steep down-grades.)

The road I was on varied between level and gradual up-grades so, over the next ten miles I caught the truck up. It was quite a substantial truck with a bright blue cab and lots of chrome / truck-bling.

I overtook the truck and then spent the next ten-to-fifteen miles watching it disappear into the the rear view mirror. I thought nothing more of it. 

The road continued on. It passed over the summit of the landscape and then the road started to drop away in gradual, and in some places slightly steeper, downgrades. 

Twenty more minutes went by. 

I glanced in the rear-view mirror:

What was that? Imperceptible on the horizon was a large black spec. It couldn’t be could it?

The road went on and became quite undulating? My mind wandered for a while then, absent-mindedly, I glanced into the rear-view mirror:

Crap. This actually startled me quite bit. How’d he got so close so quickly? In an excellent piece of timing he also only turned his headlights on after I’d been looking for him for about a half-second in the mirror. It was almost as if he knew I was watching him. 

I was getting worried. Maybe I’d angered him by overtaking. Maybe this was the start of back-and-forth battle between us that would ultimately end in us both catering over a cliff. Maybe Spielberg was right. 

The gradual down-grades continued. Every time I looked in the mirror he was closer, black exhaust spewing from the vertical pipes either side of his cab every time his engine kicked up a notch. I was fighting a loosing battle. On a down-grade there was no hope. 

A few miles later he was practically on my bumper. The road dropped away ahead and I looked again in my mirror. He was gone! Disappeared! The car was buffeted to the right as he flew past my left hand side. As his cab passed mine I got a blare from the traditional American truck horn. 

Touché truck. You’ve been planning this for miles. 

He pulled over in front of me and then gradually started to open up a gap. I watched him disappear into the distance over the next twenty miles. Eventually, he became indistinguishable from the shimmering mirage as the road disappears into the horizon. 

You win this round truck. 

The whole thing had been played out in well over an hour and, as a result, I only had ten miles left until I had to turn right. For the rest of the day I kept half-expecting the truck to appear in my mirrors again. 

 

 

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